Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #161. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 3, 2020; in print Dec. 6

COVID-19 has brought many changes to our lives. It has also revealed pre-existing conditions, inequities and injustices that are an infection in our culture and society and that have metastasized throughout our economy, our health care, our education.

Now it is wakeup time.

Here is something that is being done in our area.

The academic opportunity and achievement gaps between students of color – particularly African Americans – and white students in Central Minnesota have long been apparent. COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated those gaps.

Robert Johnson, a longtime Black educator in the community and currently professor emeritus at St. Cloud State University, took the lead. He had already had conversations with St. Cloud Area School District officials, with the African American Male Forum and with St. Cloud NAACP.

He then met with representatives of United Way Partner for Student Success (UW PFSS), the education initiative of United Way of Central Minnesota, to explore future action.

UW PFSS has been working to support African American students in specific ways following a community-wide, data-driven, strategic planning process conducted in 2017, so it was clear that Johnson’s ideas and the intentions of UW PFSS were in alignment. (Disclosure: my wife is an advisory board member of UW PFSS.)

Here is the question that Johnson posed to UW PFSS this spring: Can we address the immediate pandemic crisis in such a way as to continue dealing with the pre-existing conditions after the public health crisis is over? Or, to put it another way, can we forestall falling into the “We made it through, so we can go back to the way it was” trap?

To answer the question, Johnson and UW PFSS did the following:

  1. Listen to a wide spectrum of African American youth and families in the community about the challenges caused by COVID-19, and gather input about remedies to remove barriers and gain better long-term opportunities to learn;
  2. Elevate this message to community leaders, public representatives, foundations and major donors to generate increased resources to support parents and existing, emerging and future efforts to increase the success of African American children in the community.

Key to both immediate and long-term effectiveness: involve the entire family.

To begin, UW PFSS and Johnson brought people together to figure out solutions to problems.

They held multiple listening sessions across the community with African American families and students. Homework completion, online absenteeism and learning loss are already taking a particular toll on African Americans, and increasing isolation, loneliness, stress and anxiety are reported as well. Social emotional support is critical. Parents described work schedule conflicts, and acknowledged the difficult challenge of unpreparedness to be their children’s teacher.

UW PFSS wrote and received grants and started raising funds to support distance learning support sites in the region. Among the 10 set up so far are ones at Promise Neighborhood and Higher Ground Collaborative. Locations include rental office space and church basements. New partnerships and sites are emerging weekly as other needs and inequities are uncovered.

Additional support comes from the St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids school districts, including arranging for on-site paraprofessionals, training for community staff on distance learning platforms, and connection to online tutoring and support systems. UW PFSS, with existing funds and newly raised money, is supporting staffing, rent, volunteer stipends and access to internet and technology at many sites.

The most ambitious partnership with the highest potential impact is set to launch at Discovery Elementary in Waite Park. To serve the isolated Bel Clare mobile park community, UW PFSS has created a distance learning support site at Discovery that utilizes Boys & Girls Club KidStop and Discovery paras as the on-site program providers, Spanier busing for transportation and UW PFSS resource navigators and CentraCare community health workers as parent engagement and support specialists. The hope is to serve 70 to 80 students each day at this site.

Discovery Elementary principal Becky Estrada and her leadership team have identified and recruited students who can best utilize this program. They are deeply grateful to know the community truly cares about the kids who need the most support.

COVID-19 has prompted this innovation. With additional and continuing help from donors, UW PFSS and other community partners will be able to maintain this sort of deep and comprehensive response to inequities well beyond this time of pandemic. No returning to “the way it was.”

Become alert to this crisis, which far predates COVID-19. Join the partnership and support this community action. Make clear, once again, that the St. Cloud area, in the memorable words of Rev. James Alberts II, is “big enough to make a difference, small enough to make it work.”

We need to cover pre-existing conditions, of course. Even more, we need to cure them.